Stan Van Gundy says the Pistons are at a point where they don’t have many holes to fill, which means the roster turbulence won’t be quite as dramatic this off-season. But he’s also said the lesson of his first two summers on the job is that trades have proven a more effective means to an end than free agency for where the Pistons are in their development.
They’re farther along now than they were at this point last year, and way ahead of where they were when Van Gundy assumed control 24 months ago, so perhaps the equilibrium is moving closer to the free agency end of the spectrum.
But if the Pistons sense their progress from 29 wins to 44 over the last two years hasn’t sufficiently deepened the pool of free agents willing to give them a look, they won’t hesitate to go back to the trade route. It’s an active front office led by general manager Jeff Bower, that much we know. They’ve already made seven trades – and an eighth called off over concern for the condition of Donatas Motiejunas’ back.
The result is a nucleus of young players that led the franchise to its first playoff appearance since 2009 and is under team control for what should constitute much of the prime years of their careers. Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson are 26, Tobias Harris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 23, Andre Drummond 22 and Stanley Johnson 19.
It’s not inconceivable that the Pistons dip into that top drawer of their assets chest to find a player or two that Van Gundy and Bower feel would better complement the whole, but the safest guess would be that they’re all back and whatever additions are made this summer will fit in around them.
Here’s a look from 1 to 15 among the player who finished the season on the roster ranked in order of their likelihood to open 2016-17 wearing a Pistons uniform.
1. Reggie Jackson – Signed a five-year contract last summer and then validated Van Gundy’s belief he was not only ready to be a starting point guard but emerged as one of the top 10 in the league. Safest bet on the team to be back.2. Andre Drummond – A very close No. 2 and misses out at being No. 1 only because he will become a restricted free agent on July 1. Both sides delayed an extension last summer to allow the Pistons to maintain cap space to improve the roster this year and the full expectation is they’ll quickly reach a long-term deal in July. But his status cracks the door a fraction of an inch for another outcome.
3. Tobias Harris – Harris’ athleticism and ability to make plays off the dribble, giving Jackson some relief from the onus of having to create offense on nearly every possession, makes him a very valuable piece of the puzzle. Under contract for three more seasons, too.4. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – His ability to defend point guards – and his defensive mindset in general – makes him close to invaluable to Van Gundy, who played him a team-high 36.7 minutes a game, fifth in the league. Inconsistent 3-point shooting – .309 in his third year after .345 in his second – is one area the Pistons would like to improve at his position.5. Stanley Johnson – He’s on his rookie contract and has enormous potential. The third-youngest player in the league as a rookie at 19, Johnson has a busy summer ahead as he needs to work on his skills – ballhandling, footwork, shooting – but Van Gundy admires and values his competitive fire and high-end defensive potential.6. Marcus Morris – Given a shot to be a full-time starter for the first time in his five-year career, Morris validated – and then some – the decision Van Gundy and Bower made last July to grab Morris to plug a gaping hole at small forward. One of the things that makes him especially attractive – an extremely team friendly contract that still has three years remaining – also makes him a very valuable trade chip.7. Aron Baynes – He has a player option for 2017-18 and, given the escalation expected in contracts this summer as the salary cap soars from $70 million to a reported $92 million, it’s nearly certain he’ll opt out for a bigger, longer deal. But he’s too valuable in his current role for the Pistons to consider moving him this summer to plug another hole. The caveat there would be if the Pistons, in the market for a bigger power forward, land a high-quality one who doubles as a backup center – sort of the way they used Greg Monroe two years ago. In that case, Baynes could become a significant trade asset.
8. Darrun Hilliard – The Pistons drafted him because they saw Hilliard offering a different skill set than their other wing players, especially his ability to put the ball on the floor. They saw that in action enough as a rookie to think he can grow into a bigger role. But he’s the type of guy that sometimes gets thrown into a bigger deal to make it work.9. Reggie Bullock – Same thing applies here, basically. Bullock has one year left on a very reasonable rookie deal and last year, though his chances were limited, showed borderline elite 3-point shooting, solid defense and the type of sound decision-making that make him an easy fit for most teams.
10. Jodie Meeks – He has one year left on the free-agent deal he signed with the Pistons in 2014 and missed all but three games due to a foot injury last season. Moving him without taking on another contract would give the Pistons roughly 50 percent more cap space than the approximately $14 million they’re likely to have otherwise. They have ample protection at his position on their depth chart, too, with Caldwell-Pope, Johnson, Hilliard and Bullock all capable of responsible minutes at shooting guard. Van Gundy values Meeks – he built his second-unit offense around him going into last season – but the Pistons are accustomed to playing without him and might be better served turning him into another asset at this point.11. Spencer Dinwiddie – If the Pistons draft a point guard in the first round, 50-50 shrinks for Dinwiddie’s chances to return. If they don’t take a point guard, then Dinwiddie likely will get all the minutes he can handle in Summer League to convince the Pistons to guarantee his third-year contract by the mid-July deadline to do so. Van Gundy has said two things that cast some doubt on Dinwiddie’s chances: after the season, he said the Pistons would pursue a free agent backup point guard and preferably one who could be part of the core going forward; during the season, he said he wanted to see enough from Dinwiddie to be considered for the backup role going into his third season and it wouldn’t be enough for him to show he could still be the No. 3 point guard.
LESS THAN LIKELY
12. Anthony Tolliver – Unless a trade early in July – like the one for Marcus Morris on the first day of free agency last year – shakes up the mix at the forward slots, Morris and Tobias Harris return as incumbent starters and Van Gundy is on the record saying he’d like a bigger power forward. He said he told Tolliver after the season he’s open to his return but had other priorities to tackle first. If Tolliver can’t find a bigger role elsewhere and the Pistons have all of their other business handled, he could return, valued for his professionalism, leadership and 3-point shooting.13. Steve Blake – The situation is much the same for Blake as for Tolliver. If the Pistons draft a point guard, they’d probably consider the draftee No. 3 and look for a veteran backup. If they don’t, it’s conceivable Blake could come back as the No. 3 point guard after the Pistons have signed a younger backup.14. Joel Anthony – The Pistons have a team option on Anthony, but chances are they’ll want to use the $2.5 million reportedly due him as cap space instead. With Drummond and Baynes ahead of him, the Pistons will take care of other business and then might use the minimum exception to sign a veteran as the No. 3 center. If Anthony hasn’t gotten a better offer elsewhere, it’s pretty certain Van Gundy would love to have him back in that role.15. Lorenzo Brown – When Reggie Jackson missed a game late in the season with an abdominal injury, the Pistons hurriedly brought back Brown – fresh off two 10-day deals with them – and signed him to a non-guaranteed deal for next season, as well, a standard maneuver when a team adds a player so late. He could be a candidate for the No. 3 job if the Pistons don’t bring back Dinwiddie or Blake.